A week ago, a momentous blast shook Lebanon, in more ways than one. Many tourists and travellers will add Beirut to the list of no-go areas. The explosion was an accident, but the ensuing protests could be dangerous. Is it safe to travel to Lebanon?
[This piece originally appeared on The Focus]
Emerging from lock-down with a sense of wanderlust, perhaps tinged with claustrophobia, many people might be wondering: is it safe for me to travel to Lebanon, let alone Beirut, after the blast?
Your dollars, pounds and euros will be more valuable to the Lebanese now than they have been for a long time. However, given the ongoing prevalence of covid-19, international travel is still not recommended. Lock-downs are springing up sporadically in Europe, Australia and the Middle East.
Contextualising the Beirut explosion
For a country steeped in political strife and plagued by economic turmoil, the explosion of August 4 was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It has galvanised various social movements calling for top-down upheaval. The Lebanese diaspora, which amounts to three times the population of Lebanon itself, have sent resources and cash back into the country, to bolster its defence against chaos.
The dust is unlikely to settle in the short term, and the necessary infrastructural changes must come from within. This begs the question — is there a role for foreigners to play in Lebanon’s regeneration?
How will Beirut change?
It is hard to quantify how the streets of Beirut are gong to change in the coming weeks and months. For decades, there have been regional tensions in the area, between bordering nations. However, over the last few years, Lebanon has played host to millions of travellers from overseas, myself included. Some months see over half a million visitors. 7% of Lebanon’s GDP comes from the tourism industry.
When commentators speculate that the blast might have been an attack (i.e., Trump, plus others), it triggers a fear response. Modern consumers are primed to accept rash and sensationalist headlines. Whether they are true or not, they are hard to unread. It is important to know, and that everyone knows, that the Lebanese explosion was not an attack.
Indeed, this is perhaps the most tragic part of the story — it was the result of internal failures. There are two things which follow from this. The first is that, as it was not a terrorist attack, the level of threat does not automatically rise.
However, one cannot ignore the precedent for unforeseen accidents (i.e. natural disasters) causing large-scale social unrest. Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his cabinet have already resigned. What more is to come?
The Beirut explosion through the lens of… China and Sri Lanka
In 2008, an earthquake struck northern Sichuan with a force so great that it flattened four fifths of the buildings along its 155-mile fault line. Aftershocks persisted for years. Almost 90,000 people were counted as dead, and over 350,000 more injured.
Comparably, the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 caused a rift in the lives of countless individuals. In Sri Lanka alone, 400,000 people were displaced. Like the earthquake in Sichuan, and the explosion in Beirut, from the layman’s perspective it was unforeseeable. From a macro perspective, it indicated no overarching terrorist threat.
When industry meddles
What followed in Sri Lanka was not textbook, with corruption, mismanagement and bureaucracy marring the road to recovery. Officials and capitalists used tourism as a vector to accrue wealth. In this case, international tourism was used as a vessel in which to drive through certain exclusionist policies. Holidaymakers won out; travellers and local residents now have far busier streets to contend with.
On the other hand, China “quickly deployed 130,000 soldiers and other relief workers to the stricken area”. The cost of reparations has been estimated at $86 billion. However, in a region less dependent on foreign capital, and more adequately supported by central government, recovery has arguably been more straightforward.
When mega-disasters occur, whether they were foreseeable or not, what matters is how governments deal with the aftermath.
Where do you fit in?
Watch this space. Lebanon will soon leave the headlines, but the effects of the explosion will be felt by the people of Beirut for years. Once the flurry of international aid dies down, and everyone turns back to their TV screens, it will be down to those who care quietly, to help.